It usually takes a few decades to sort these things out, but it’s just possible that what Charlotte Rampling does in “45 Years” may someday be considered one of the greatest performances by an actress in the history of the movies. Up there with Maria Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence,” Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.” Maybe not. All I know is that I emerged from the movie in a white-out haze of emotions, synapses overloaded, grateful beyond words to an actress who can convey so much with such subtlety of means.
Rampling doesn’t do showy acting, not here anyway. And her character, Kate Mercer, is rather small as well. Just an upper-middle-class Englishwoman, half of a long-married couple, living in retired contentment in the British countryside. Well-groomed, well-kept, cultured, progressive, pleasant. You pass her at the supermarket all the time without looking twice.
Directed by Andrew Haigh — he made the much-praised romantic drama “Weekend” in 2011 — “45 Years” begins as Kate and her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), receive a bit of news. A long-dead girlfriend of Geoff’s, Katya, has been found, her body preserved in the ice of the Alpine crevasse into which she fell a half century before, during a hike with Geoff. Kate never met Katya, and Geoff has rarely spoken of her, or of the accident. Yet over the next few days, he seems to physically recede into the past. He goes for long walks, takes up smoking again, and digs out the slide projector in the attic for solitary midnight shows.
This is disconcerting to Kate, to put it mildly, but she’s too polite or trusting or British to make a fuss. The couple’s 45th anniversary is coming up, and they’re planning a bash, the one that was supposed to happen for their 40th until Geoff went in for heart surgery. But how do you celebrate when one half of the couple is no longer there? And when the other half begins to suspect she’s not the woman her husband loves but the woman he settled for?
“45 Years” is quiet but extremely attuned. Adapting a short story by David Constantine, Haigh establishes the private rhythms of two people who have lived as one for decades. Kate married young, and she and Geoff never had children; they speak in a comfortable code only they understand. There’s still sex, now and then, for which they’re cautiously thankful. To quote the T-shirt, life is good.
Still: Katya. Kate’s friend Lena (Geraldine James) is scandalized and properly cynical about the late-life regrets of men. Kate downplays her unease, but she notices everything, and Rampling’s performance is almost entirely in her eyes as they flick about the character’s life, registering panic by growing degrees. The actress gives away very little, yet you understand what Kate is thinking and feeling at every curve in the road.
“45 Years” is a movie about intuition and inner lives, and you have to look fast to catch all its resonances. In particular, a scene in which Kate heads to the attic to watch those slides for herself contains a sliver of visual information that you may miss if you’re glancing at your phone. That one tiny clue upends the movie from domestic drama into human tragedy, as if Kate’s orderly house had just had its center beams kicked away.
This is one of three sequences that haunt the movie. A second is when Kate sits down at her piano and picks out music for the first time in what may be years. At first she plays the Bach piece that’s on the stand, every note perfect and in its place. Then, in a trance, she slides into an improvisation that grows wild and wilder, as if we were getting a glimpse of the adventurous Katya that Kate herself might have been, of the life she might have had if she hadn’t given it away. And suddenly the 45 years of the title no longer seems like a blessing. It feels like a curse.
The third is the sequence that brings “45 Years” to its climax, at the anniversary party that has become a celebration for everyone but the couple it’s celebrating. Again, they’re British, so there are no scenes. But there is a moment — a gesture into which Rampling packs all the violence that can rage inside a good, decent, bereft woman. Is it defiance Kate is signaling, or capitulation, or the welcoming of death after a long and wasted life? That’s for you to figure out on the cold ride home.
Directed and written by Andrew Haigh, based on a short story by David Constantine. Starring Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James. At Kendall Square. 95 minutes. R (language, brief sexuality).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.